The Life of An Artist, Poet, Slave: Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier

Picture Book Reading Challenge: 22 of 72

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Myra here.

I first learned of this book when the 2011 Children’s Book Award winners was announced (our blog post can be found here). I knew then that I should find this book and feature it here in GatheringBooks. Our 8-day Black History Month special seems like a perfect time to do this. I am glad that I found the book lying around in our community library.

I wonder where is all my relation

friendship to all – and, every nation

– August 16, 1857

“The gritty grains slip between your fingers” – the dirt that shaped Dave’s life and art

This award-winning picture book is more than just your average children’s book with rhymes that put children to bed. It speaks of a heritage and sheer artistry that have been silenced for so many years and the unfailing capacity of this voice to be heard even after two hundred years have passed.

Laban Carrick Hill, the Author of this lovely book – click on the image to be taken to the websource

The Author’s Note found at the back of the book shared how the vision for this book came about. Laban Carrick Hill was attending a conference on the Middle Passage in Vermont when he wandered into a talk given by a Professor of Art at Vassar College, a Dr. Lisa Gail Collins’ whose presentation was on African influences on African American art. During her presentation, she showed one of Dave’s pots with a poem written on it:

I, made this Jar, all of cross

If, you don’t repent, you will be, lost ==

This haunting haiku resonated in Carrick Hill’s ears until he began writing his own poem to celebrate Dave’s life – thus, the birth of this beautiful book I am now holding in my hands.

Dave’s life has inspired the creation of this book by Leonard Todd and this award-winning picture book by Carrick Hill and Collier

Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave. As I was sifting through websources that would make me understand Dave’s life better, I chanced upon this website by Leonard Todd that chronicles the life of Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave as he became to be known in Carolina. In a condensed version of Dave’s life as could be found here, it was noted that by piecing together tax records and the archives of Dave’s owners’ life history, it could be deduced that Dave was born around 1801 and that he was most likely born in America.

The grains that mould Dave’s young life. While we take quite a number of things for granted, Dave’s intuitive and artistic sense saw a shape, a figure, a fully-formed pot where others’ eye and hands couldn’t. His aesthetic vision allowed him to create something from out of nothing:

To us
it is just dirt, 

Dave mixing clay with water until it becomes “wet and stiff and heavy.”

 

the ground we walk on.
Scoop up a handful.
The gritty grains slip
between your fingers.
On wet days,
heavy with rainwater,
it is cool and squishy,
mud pie heaven.
But to Dave
it was clay, the plain and basic stuff
upon which he learned to
form a life
as a slave nearly
two hundred years ago.

Strength, Skill, and Artistry Combined. In the Author’s note, it was shown that Dave was one of only two known potters during the period who could manage to create pots that were larger than twenty gallons, even as much as forty gallons:

A pot large enough “to hold memories”

 

He threw the clay,
sometimes sixty pounds at once,
and nobody knew
how or where it would land
except for Dave.
Dave kicked
his potter’s wheel
until it spun
as fast as
a carnival’s wheel of fortune.

And so “like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat” Dave’s dexterous fingers and keen eye would mould a vessel where none existed.

Poetry that speaks loud and clear two hundred years later. Carrick Hill shared that while most slaves were used for unskilled jobs, Dave’s life may be perceived as comparatively better than others since not only was he permitted to create these beautiful pots, he also knew how to read and to write. While it was not clear who taught Dave literacy skills, Leonard Todd hypothesized that it was most likely Harvey Drake, a profoundly religious man and Dave’s first known owner who may have shared the gift of letters to the enslaved potter.

Dave picking up a stick and writing down his thoughts before the jar completely hardened

While it may seem whimsical to us at present to “leave a mark” similar to the commonly-found-watermarks created to signify one’s photos shared on the internet, leaving such inscriptions was actually life-threatening during the time of Dave the Poet. Recall that this was a period when white slave owners strictly forbid their slaves from learning how to read and write for fear that they would demand freedom and respect.

Dave, aside from his beautiful artwork, was the only known chronicler of his time through the poetry that he would write down in his pots.

put every bit all between

surely this Jar will hold 14

– July 12, 1834

Dave, hard at work, creating glazed pots that are now housed in major museums in the United States

This poem was found in one of the earliest pots that historians know for certain Dave has created. In Leonard Todd’s website, he related:

Writing this short set of instructions in how to pack a fourteen-gallon jar with meat may seem a simple thing, but it was in fact an extraordinary act of courage for a slave at that time. Dave was telling the world of Edgefield that he could read words, he could write words, and he could even make words rhyme. (click here to be taken to the websource)

Glimpse of Freedom through Art. The illustrator, Bryan Collier shared in his Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book that he visited South Carolina and Pottersville to

The gifted Illustrator Bryan Collier. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

do his research as he was doing his inspired watercolor/collage images for this book. Here, he met the local potter named Stephen Ferrell who explained how Dave the Potter happens to be a central figure in the rich history of pottery created in the Carolinas (see youtube link at the end of this feature).

I spent quite a number of hours just staring at the beautiful illustrations, seeing how the fragments and colorful pieces are ‘stitched’ together as Collier engaged us in the entire process of creating pottery as seen through Dave’s life. Despite the fact that there were no records showing how Dave looked like, Bryan explained that he based his illustrations on a model whom he felt “reflected the spirit of Dave.” I also found some of what he wrote down in his Notes to be profoundly moving:

Throughout this book, certain images remind the reader that Dave was a slave – images of shackles and chains, and of slaves picking cotton in the fields. In many ways, Dave’s artistry may have served as his own glimpse of freedom, and a way of carving out a life under the brutal and dehumanizing conditions of slavery. Dave’s noble jars and verses blaze through the ages and speak profoundly of dignity to our generation and beyond.

This one here is my favorite image of Dave – illustrating the human capacity to thrive and survive – and yes to celebrate Life, Love, and Beauty.

I also found a youtube link that shows an interview with Steve Ferrell from Edgefield recounting the life and work of Dave, the potter, the artist, the poet, the slave. While the audio (and the entire video clip) leaves much to be desired, I figured that it might be helpful in painting a picture of this formidable man whose talent and craft managed to survive after centuries of silence and servitude.

Resource for Educators. The picture book also included an educator’s guide to Dave the Potter. This website contains an overwhelming array of resources including possible curriculum materials, lesson plans, slide descriptions, and historical details that teachers can use to introduce Dave’s life to young minds and artists-in-training.

1 Comment on The Life of An Artist, Poet, Slave: Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill and Bryan Collier

  1. Wow, that book looks gorgeous! Fascinating story.

    Like

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